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Thursday, October 16, 2008

Bar Passage: A Key Factor to Look To in USN Voting

For those filling out the U.S. News survey rating the academic quality of JD programs across the country, one logical question is what kind of information one ought to look at to make such determinations. Here's one key piece of data: bar passage rates relative to entering credentials.

So if we look at schools that have students with not-great entering credentials, but high bar passage rates in recent years -- that's a good signal that the quality of the JD program is relatively strong.

Two possible objections (and others welcome) on this as a metric: first, this encourages and rewards "teaching to the bar." My response is: well, the school that has pulled off one of the biggest bar-passage miracles of recent times, New York.Law School, raised bar passage rates -- 57% to 90% -- primarily by teaching struggling students analytic skills. See Dean Matasar's description of how they did it here (p. 3 of pdf). Intensive training in analytic skills for struggling students? Sounds good to me.

Second objection is: bar passage is already included in the U.S. News formula -- why double count it? The response is: bar passage counts for next to nothing (2%) in the US news formula, and it's considered on an absolute, not relative, basis. So Yale gets essentially the same credit for achieving a 90% bar passage rate in New York as New York Law School does, working with students with far lower entering credentials.

Below is the list we have so far, and thanks to Bill Henderson for pointing us in the direction of some of these schools.

I'm quite sure we're missing some, and we're working on finalizing the list for that Voters' Guide out next week -- so please let us know other schools that might be considered to be in this category.

Schools that Achieve High Bar Passage Rates Relative to Entering Credentials:
Campbell (NC)
Duquesne (PA)
Florida Coastal
Florida International
Mercer (GA)
New York Law School
North Carolina Central
Texas Tech
University of Memphis
University of San Francisco

Posted by Jason Solomon on October 16, 2008 at 09:19 AM in Life of Law Schools | Permalink


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I'm skeptical. There are too many variables that you are not accounting for.

A few things to think about.... First, schools can improve their bar pass rates through high attrition. That has little to do with the quality of the program. Second, the pass rates of the individual state bar exams vary greatly. If a school has a large number of students in an easier bar exam, their pass rate will be higher. Absolute bar pass rates seem almost meaningless -- you would need to compare projected bar pass rate based on entering credentials, with actual bar pass rates in individual states (what you refer to as "value-added" in your survey). Third, although focusing on analytical skills is positive, it is unclear that schools attempting to improve their bar pass rates are doing that (rather than focusing on teaching the bar's black-letter law, or providing students with "bar preparation" courses in law school). Lastly, there exists little correlation between entering credentials (LSAT/UGPA) and bar exam performance. So it seems strange to use that as the touchstone for program quality.

Your attempt to find another metric other than the USNWR rankings for evaluating schools is laudable. But I tend to think you won't have the data you need to make this metric meaningful. Even if you did, I'm unclear why you believe the bar exam reflects or measures traits/ skills/ qualities that the legal profession values or should value. Conventional wisdom is that the bar exam serves a gate keeping function at most. Personally, I believe less emphasis on the bar exam, not greater emphasis, would be better for most of our students and for legal education.

A final point: if you're trying to evaluate outcome measures -- why aren't you looking at LSSSE? That would seem a better measure than bar pass rate.

Posted by: AP | Oct 16, 2008 12:15:22 PM

Thanks for the helpful comments. On #1, I agree attrition does not reflect quality, and meant to mention that. However, my instinct is that more attrition is good. On #2, yes, that's what we're doing, these are schools that have high bar passage rates relative to the average in a jurisdiction and other schools with the same or better entering credentials. Should have made more clear in post -- thanks. On #3, I'm admittedly taking Matasar's thing at face value -- would love to hear from others on whether that's actually the story. On #4, good point; would welcome alternatives, but I gather you don't like whole bar thing anyway. At least the way we're currently presenting it, people can give it as much or little weight as they want -- problem is lack of alternatives, I think.

And yes, I absolutely think LSSSE should be looked at and we're trying to, and mentioned that in a prior post, http://prawfsblawg.blogs.com/prawfsblawg/2008/10/and-the-winner.html -- problem is data isn't public so we're relying on schools that make it so, and asked about it in survey.

On making the metric meaningful, all we have to do is beat the status quo (not hard), and hopefully spur better data development -- that's what we're trying to do, and I appreciate the help in doing so.

Posted by: Jason Solomon | Oct 16, 2008 12:37:03 PM

I wonder whether you can really develop better quality data by a) relying on self-reporting surveys that are not verified by any outside source, and b) emphasizine Carnegie-type values (which to me largely echo McCrate-typoe reforms) in the surveys. I look at your survey and nmy response was why waste the time reporting this kind of stuff. You might have a large amount of self-selection in reporting by law schools that value the very types of learning experiences they purportedly excel at, and silence from those school that don't or that consider scholarship more important even though they may offer many of those same learning experiences. I am not sure what such data will show other than that there are different visions of reform and quality in legal education. On this type of self-reporting survey, I am not sure I care whether my law school performs well or not.

Posted by: anon | Oct 16, 2008 2:09:48 PM

Some further candidates in the overperformer catagory are (in no particular order): Baylor, Ave Marie, Fordham, Stetson, Miami, and Richmond

Posted by: Roger Dennis | Oct 17, 2008 9:04:32 AM

Bar passage should absolutely play a large role in rankings. For example, Louisiana State University Law Center students have outscored Tulane every year (except 2006) for the past 30 years on the bar exam. LSU law students have also outscored University of Texas students on the Texas bar.

Florida Coastal students routinely outscore UF, FSU, and U Miami students as well.

All schools teach to the test. The sole purpose of law school is to prepare students for the working world, which is achieved by passing the bar exam.

Posted by: Anonymous | Oct 17, 2008 9:15:41 AM

As regards comment 1: schools that allow law students to fail are absolutely better than schools which allow students who cannot pass the bar to continue. It is far better to leave law school after one year with only $40K in debt, and no career, than it is to leave law school after three years with $120K in debt and no career.

This should be amongst the top metrics in evaluating legal education along with:

- employment rate after graduation (the most important metric);
- number of clinical programs at the law school;
- number of students (less = better law school).

Posted by: anonymous | Oct 17, 2008 2:45:27 PM

A factor that seems to be overlooked is cram courses. I took a cram couses in New York that would have gotten Joe the Plumber through the bar. Some hot shots I knew from Cambridge and Boston figured they could get by without a cram course and ended up with egg on their faces. The next time out they took cram courses and did fine.

Posted by: JOEL KAUFFMAN | Oct 18, 2008 12:34:57 PM

How do you account for UW and Marquette Law in this metric? Do they get penalized for the students who choose to take advantage of Wisconsin's diploma privilege, despite the fact that most (if not all) could likely pass the bar in Wisconsin if they needed to?

Posted by: Andrew Golden | Oct 18, 2008 11:48:57 PM

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